Why Microsoft Needs A Design Czar

A "far-reaching" company restructuring at Microsoft aims to force more collaboration. But Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer may have forgotten an important element: design.

Early last year, as Microsoft was receiving surprisingly rave reviews for its design of Windows Phone 7.5 Mango, many in the industry wondered how Redmond had pulled off such a beautiful product. The traditionally engineering-centric company had never been known for its design savvy, but its Windows Phone UI—with its minimalist tiles and simple yet beautiful navigation—had arguably leaped ahead of Apple in its design thinking. It was quite the coup, considering how long, and how far, Microsoft had lagged behind Apple on this front.

Would it signal a new, design-focused Microsoft? Unfortunately for the company's shareholders, the forward-thinking designs of Windows Phone were only a limited (though promising) evolution in the company's strategy.

While we saw top-notch design elements of Windows Phone seep into products like Windows 8 and Xbox and Bing, Microsoft's stable of products still felt incredibly disparate, as if they were designed by groups that were not only failing to communicate with each other, but even competing among themselves. It was far from the unified approach to product successfully executed by its chief rival Apple, which produces its iPods, iPhones, iPads, and iMacs using the same DNA across products. The problem has been, as Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer laid out in a much-anticipated internal email released today to all employees, that the company has not seen its "product line holistically, [but] as a set of islands." The memo set out a "far-reaching" company restructuring, Ballmer wrote, that will allow Microsoft to rally "behind a single strategy as one company—not a collection of divisional strategies."

The company shakeup Ballmer announced Thursday morning is designed to shift and consolidate responsibilities. By collapsing eight product groups into four, Ballmer hopes the various Microsoft divisions will work more efficiently together, with less redundancy and more collaboration. For example, Julie Larson-Green, who previously headed up the Windows OS group, will now oversee a devices group that will handle hardware like the Xbox video game console and Surface tablets. And Terry Myerson will oversee a unified OS engineering group, focusing his efforts on Windows, Windows Phone, and the software underpinning Xbox.

Whether or not the restructuring will be successful is unclear. What is clear, though, is that Ballmer couldn't let the old way of doing business continue forever, especially considering the slow adoption of Windows Phone and underwhelming launch of Windows 8. Plus, products like Office and Skype and Internet Explorer looked as if they were built by a different company when compared to Windows 8 and Xbox. There needs to be more cross-pollination.

Windows 8 Home Design, top; Xbox One Home Design, bottom

These problems have long been obvious to any consumers of Microsoft's products, but they became especially clear during the development of Windows Phone and Windows 8. Last year, when I asked Windows Phone SVP Joe Belfiore how design elements of Windows Phone might make their way into other Microsoft products, he responded, "We're at a point in our history where the product groups, by and large, operate independently—they make decisions that they think are best for their customers and users. It’s not a case where there’s a top-down mandate: everyone go do this. . . . There are few cases where senior management says, 'Everyone is going to do this.' Those [instances] are the exceptions rather than the rule."

It was an odd strategy, considering the company has roughly 90,000 employees. How could they possibly all operate on the same page? The lack of direct collaboration was all the more apparent when I spoke with a top leader of the Windows group not long ago, which had been mimicking much of the Windows Phone design for the launch of Windows 8. Shockingly, however, the groups didn't collaborate closely for such an important product. "We work in a different way than the Phone team does," the top Windows leader told me. "We don't do the same things as the Phone team. We have a different level of autonomy."

The disparate product divisions have been a huge headache for Microsoft. And without one person overseeing product from all the various divisions, their "islands," as Ballmer referred to them, have moved farther apart. As Julie Larson-Green once told me, "Unlike other companies that maybe have one person at the top, we don’t have a [design] czar at Microsoft."

And perhaps this is the greatest flaw with Ballmer's restructuring. Maybe we'll finally begin to see things change at Microsoft, trending toward more collaboration—though it will likely take a long time to see how these changes will impact the company and its products. But the company still lacks that single visionary at the top making sure that Windows, Windows Phone, Xbox, Office, Bing, Skype, SkyDrive, SharePoint, Azure, and other Microsoft products not only look and feel the same but work the same way as well.

Certainly, there isn't a Steve Jobs at Microsoft, nor is there a Jony Ive. But the fact that Ballmer only mentioned the word "design" once in his memo—referring to Microsoft's marketing and advertising—shows he perhaps still hasn't realized Microsoft's greatest and most underutilized strength.

[Image: Flickr user Eva Peris]

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